Why Most Language Proficiency Exams are a Pointless Waste of Your Time

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Recently I tweeted out the following message concerning language exams, generating a fair amount of discussion and agreement among fellow learners.

I’ve been reflecting on this issue a lot as I recently completed a semester studying advanced Mandarin at a leading university in Taiwan.

In general, I found the course useful. The teacher was supportive and I was constantly exposed to formal vocabulary which is necessary to understand the news in Chinese – an area I’m keen to improve at. I prepared and delivered multiple presentations on various topics and was given valuable feedback on my performance.

However, like almost all university language courses, a large component of this one was regular assessments.

The mid-term and finals exams involved reading advanced texts and listening to short news broadcasts. We were then asked a series of questions to test we’d ‘understood’ specific and apparently random information contained within the materials. Some sections involved matching advanced vocabulary to blank spaces within sentences.

The tasks are similar to those included in official proficiency exams, such as the HSK. According to multiple learners I’ve spoken to and interviewed for my podcast, they are also an inescapable part of many formal Mandarin courses around the world. In other words, this is the mainstream. If you sign up to a university course in Chinese it’s likely you will face this too.

With a little preparation I was able pass with good grades. Yet as someone who has self-studied Chinese for several years, suddenly finding myself in a situation where I had to spend my time preparing for tests came as a culture shock. And I’m convinced that structuring language programmes around these assessments is deeply problematic, especially for beginner and intermediate learners whose time would be much better spent on more productive activities.

The main problem can be summarised succinctly as follows: preparing for and performing well on listening and reading tests is only very loosely connected to the primary goal of all serious language learners: acquisition.

As I’ve previously written, if you want to become good at understanding your target language for real-life purposes you first need to acquire it. This is mainly achieved through mass exposure to content appropriate to your level. In other words, thousands of hours engaging in conversations with native speakers, listening to podcasts or watching videos. Following this method you will eventually understand your target language with an ease approaching your native language.

If, on the other hand, your main goal is to get good at proficiency tests quickly – and sadly for many students that is their main goal whether they like it or not – spending thousands of hours immersed in Mandarin is not the most advisable use of your time. Instead, to save time you’re incentivised to learn certain tricks of the trade that enable you to answer exam questions correctly before you’ve actually acquired the language you’re being tested on.

Rather than strive to understand Chinese, or use it proficiently, the goal is to master the art of getting the answer right despite not having fully understood what you’ve read or listened to.

In order to achieve this a ‘good student’ will typically cram vocabulary lists prior to the test. On the day of the test they will first read the questions before listening out for or scanning key-words, then using these to guess the correct answers. With the right training, students with limited functional abilities in a language can get remarkably good at this within a relatively short space of time.

The problem is language acquisition and test preparation are both time consuming. Under a system which rewards high performance in tests but ignores or downplays acquisition, students whose initial goal was to become fluent in Chinese are forced to invest more of their time in the former activity while neglecting the latter.

Furthermore, many of the educators who design mainstream curricula and tests appear to have a very selective interest in accuracy. According to them, it’s of the utmost importance that students accurately remember random pieces of information buried deep within obscure texts they have no interest in. But communicating clearly with accurate tones, natural sentence structure and word usage is of very little importance.

I recall an exchange I had in Chinese with a Mandarin teacher at a French university. After he praised my tones I asked him what proportion of his students graduate from their undergraduate course able to produce tones accurately and without difficulty. He put the figure at 5% admitting the rest still had significant problems. To his mind this shockingly low success rate was the inevitable consequence of differing degrees of talent rather than a failure of the education system to help the students speak comprehensible Chinese.

The pedagogical flaws outlined above have serious consequences. Often learners spend four or five years memorising word lists and guessing the correct answer on exams but never reach a level at which they can be understood clearly (outside the classroom) and ultimately forget most of what they crammed for within months of graduating.

In this sense Mandarin courses mirror methodologies used to teach English in Chinese and Taiwanese high schools. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the results of that experiment.

Overall, I feel increasingly fortunate that I studied largely independently, as opposed to relying on formal schooling. I’m especially glad that as a beginner and intermediate student I never had to worry about performing well on assessments of my ability to guess the correct answer for areas of the language I’d not yet acquired. Instead, my time was freed up to focus on what mattered to me – communicating myself in clear Chinese and understanding native speakers with ease.

The freedom to acquire a language at your leisure, through consuming content of interest without the external pressure of proficiency exams is a blessing. Until educators stop designing curricula which force students to waste time cramming for pointless tests, beginner and intermediate leaners who want to become fluent in Chinese should either look for schools which go against the mainstream or opt for independent learning.

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